When Temple and La Salle meet tonight at what could be a sold-out Liacouras Center, the Philadelphia Big 5 title will be on the line. The Explorers (18-6, 8-3 Atlantic 10) have already locked up a share of the city-series championship and could win their first outright Big 5 crown since 1990 with a win over the Owls (17-8, 6-4 A-10), who could get a share of it and claim a record 27th city-series championship.
But at the risk of offending the Philadelphia basketball purists, that's really not the most important thing to consider when the two teams tip off at 7 p.m. Although there's still plenty of basketball to be played, tonight's game could likely have big implications for the NCAA Tournament resumes of both teams.
According to Jerry Palm's RPI rankings on CBSSports.com, Temple comes into tonight's game with an RPI of 49, while La Salle enters the contest with an RPI of 35 and a very realistic chance of gaining its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1992. The Owls, meanwhile, don't want to see their streak of five consecutive appearances in the Big Dance snapped this season, but an unsightly loss to Duquesne a week ago at the Liacouras Center put Temple squarely back upon the proverbial bubble.
The Owls rebounded with a big road win two nights later at Massachusetts, but they know tonight's game is the biggest they've played to date this season.
"They've been playing extremely well with some really good wins - Butler, (at) VCU," said Randall, the 6-foot-6 senior forward who hit a critical three-pointer at UMass last Saturday that allowed Temple to come away with a one-point win.
"It's going to be similar to a St. Joe's game, like a rivalry," Randall added. "They're going to want to come in here and beat us and we're going to want to beat them on our home floor. So it's going to be a really intense game and we've got to be ready for it."
More than anything, Temple will have to be ready for La Salle's guard-oriented attack that has three players - Ramon Galloway (17.3 points per game), Tyreek Duren (14.5 ppg.) and Tyrone Garland (12.0 ppg.) - averaging double-figure scoring. Duren and Galloway both shoot better than 40 percent from three-point range, as does 6-5 sophomore guard D.J. Peterson, who has started the last two games and eight of the Explorers' 24 this season.
Temple has struggled defensively all season, particularly when it comes to giving up points in the paint. Although La Salle has moved to a four-guard starting lineup, it still has 6-8, 240-pound sophomore forward Jerrell Wright, who averages 10.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 54.1 percent from the floor, and 6-11 sophomore Steve Zack, who has come off the bench the last two games with Peterson in the starting lineup. Nonetheless, Zack still averages 6.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and was a perfect 4 of 4 shooting in 25 minutes in last Saturday's win over Saint Joseph's.
La Salle has shown flashes of good play during coach John Giannini's eight previous seasons but has typically faltered in February and March. This season has been a different story.
"I think they're really committed to the defensive end, number one," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said of La Salle following his team's practice Wednesday at the Liacouras Center. "I think everybody has bought in and taking pride in making it difficult for teams to score. Their three-point defensive numbers are very, very good. And then on the offensive end, they're sharing the basketball. Nobody cares who gets the credit. It's truly a good team. I think there's nothing more fun as a coach to coach guys that are committed to winning. That's where they are."
Numbers-wise, La Salle doesn't look like a defensive juggernaut. While Temple has allowed its opponents to shoot 43.8 percent, the Explorers have been slightly worse in that department, permitting teams to shoot 44.6 percent from the floor. But La Salle is giving up a full three points fewer per game (64.6) than Temple (67.8) and holding teams to 30.4 percent shooting from three-point range, while the Owls have surrendered 35.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
While La Salle has won eight of its last 10 games, Temple has been a pedestrian 8-6 since a big win over then-No. 3 Syracuse back on Dec. 22 and has proved to be a much more confounding bunch this season. In addition to the Syracuse win, the Owls have a road win at Big 5 rival Villanova and an impressive win over A-10 foe Saint Louis. But home losses to Duquesne, Canisius and St. Bonaventure (its first-ever win over Temple in Philadelphia) have left the Owls' NCAA Tournament hopes in a tenuous position.
Oh, and Temple's last five games have been decided by one point. According to Stats, Inc., that string of five straight one-point games is the longest since at least 1996-97.
Things probably will not be any easier tonight, and senior guard Khalif Wyatt, the A-10's leading scorer at 19.8 points per game, knows this is the most important regular-season game Temple has faced in quite a while.
"Yeah, it's definitely a big game," Wyatt, who has been named the A-10 player of the week the last two weeks, told OwlScoop.com Wednesday. "A lot on the line for both teams and get a chance to get a share of the city title and a chance to pick up some ground in the Atlantic 10 because we need every win right now. It's a great opportunity for us and it's a city game, so that makes it better."
Finding a dependable second scoring option to help Wyatt would make things much better for Temple. The 6-4 Wyatt has led the Owls in scoring 15 times this season, including 10 of the last 11 games. Sophomore forward Anthony Lee (11.2 ppg.) and Randall (10.9 ppg.) rank second and third, respectively, in scoring, but both have struggled with their consistency at the offensive end. Fifth-year reserve forward Jake O'Brien is averaging 8.4 points per game and shooting a team-best 42.3 percent from three-point range.
Randall and Wyatt both believe forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson could be an x-factor for Temple tonight, particularly on the defensive end. The 6-6 senior, despite missing several midrange jumpers at UMass, fell just two assists shy of a triple-double with 10 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in 37 minutes against the Minutemen.
For much of the season, Hollis-Jefferson has been asked to guard post players that are typically three or four inches taller, but that could change tonight if Giannini continues to start four guards and Wright, who will be guarded by the 6-9 Lee.
"It's definitely to our advantage that he's on the floor for us," Wyatt said of Hollis-Jefferson, "because he can pretty much guard one through five. So the fact that they play pretty small for most of the game, that's probably a problem for most teams but not as much for us because we've got Rahlir."
Listen to interviews with Randall, Dunphy and Wyatt here.